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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|Ancient Coins Showing Sacred Stones|
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Sacred stones appeared on many ancient coins, Greek and Roman Provincial, and even Roman Imperial. Some of these were an interesting type, unusual to us, called a baetyl.
The Greek word baetyl, or baetylos, probably originated from the Punic "betel" or the Semitic "bethel," both meaning the house of god. There were many of these stones across the ancient world, and it seems that they represented the spirit or essence of a deity. So, they were revered aniconic symbols of gods, indicating that they were present and accessible; they were not regarded as the gods themselves.
You might read elswehere that these stones were meteorites. This is what Wikipedia says. But that is at best an oversimplification. Some might have been meteorites; some definitely were not. If the surface of a baetyl looked black and shiny, it was not because it had been melted in its passage through the atmosphere, but because it had been drenched in offerings of wine, oil, honey or milk for centuries.
Of course, not all sacred stones were baetyls.
Probably the most famous sacred stone was the Omphalos at Delphi. It was named "Navel" because it was supposed to be at the centre of the world. Other towns also had Omphalos stones, but these were copies or imitations of the revered original.
The site at Delphi was originally called Pytho, and was a centre of worship of the earth goddess Gê or Gaia. It seems that a sacred stone existed then, maybe as far back as Mycenaean times, 1400 to 1100 BCE. It is now thought that this original stone might have been where sacrifices were made to Gê, maybe an altar over which blood was poured, and was neither the embodiment of a deity nor a marker that indicated a god's accessible presence, so not a true baetyl.
Joseph E. Fontenrose, in an early edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, notes the existence of a stone block which might have been this original, sited in the adytum of Apollo's temple. It had the rough lettering ΓAΣ carved into it, meaning a dedication to the earth goddess Gê, though we don't know when these letters were carved or even, really, the shape of the block.
The site under Gê was said to have been protected by a dragon or serpent called the Python, and just a few days after Apollo was born on Delos, he came to fight it. He defeated it and took over the precincts, complete with its real prize, the most famous oracle of the ancient world, the source of Delphi's fame.
The whole site then became dedicated to Apollo. Many came to his temple, to consult the oracle. On the seventh day of the month, a priestess called the Pythia would sit on a tripod, inhale fumes from a crack in the earth, and make mysterious pronouncements said to come from the deity, which were then gracefully reworded by a college of interpreters. There are records of many famous prophecies.
The Omphalos became a symbol which represented the Delphic Apollo. So, symbols of Apollo would appear on coins which showed the Delphi Omphalos. There were many such coins and quite a few symbols.
The coin above on the right, of the Seleukid Antiochos I, shows one of the most common of such images: Apollo himself seated on the Omphalos, holding his bow and examining an arrow. Some similar coins show him grasping a laurel branch and with his kithara standing nearby.
The coin of Neapolis below left, although not very beautiful, is here because it shows Apollo's kithara leaning against the Omphalos. Apollo was a master musician, and was sometimes called the leader of the muses.
The Omphalos was the centre of much ceremony. It was said to have been anointed every day with oil, and it was certainly wrapped with a netting of raw wool (carded, but not spun or dyed) called the agrenon. Coins, vase paintings and stone copies all show the Omphalos with this ceremonial netting, which was sometimes worn by soothsayers. Similar netting is shown on some sacrificial animals, and was also depicted as being worn by Apollo.
A stone which some take to be the original Omphalos can be seen at Delphi today, out in the open, adjacent to the Treasury of the Athenians. It is of limestone and has been carved into a half-ovoid shape. But this is unlikely to be the original, and in fact shows too little weathering to have been in the open for long.
There is a Roman copy of the stone in the Delphi museum. Like other copies, it has thick netting carved onto its surface. Beware of sources like Wikipedia which say that this is the original Omphalos. It is not.
The right-hand coin above shows a snake wound around the Omphalos, and here the netted surface is obvious. Among other things, Apollo was as a deity of medicine and healing, and this is what the snake represents on this coin from Pergamon, which was famous for its sanctuary of the minor healing deity Asklepios.
The oracular sanctuary declined in importance during the period of the Roman Empire, and was closed in 395 CE on the orders of the Emperor Theodosius I.
Tyre was an ancient Phoenician city, which still exists on the coast of modern Lebanon. The main city was originally on an island just off the coast, a very good defensive position, but Alexander the Great built up a causeway to join it to the mainland, so as to conquer it, and so it remains today.
The city was known in antiquity for the production of an expensive dye, Tyrian Purple, which was made from the murex, a species of predatory sea-snail. This colour was reserved for royalty or aristocracy in several cultures.
The name of the city means "Rock." In myth, Tyre was said to have been founded on a group of floating rocks upon which an olive tree grew, the Ambrosial Rocks, which then became fixed in place to form the base of the city. These are shown on a coin of Gordian III as two rocks with a tree between them. But the coin shown here, although it has a rock and a tree, has to be something else.
This particular coin shows a date palm, the type called Phoenix, which was spread by the Phoenicians and which produces the kind of dates we still eat today. On the right is a murex shell, signifying the dye trade. The stone in the centre is oddly shaped, as though the engraver started to make it fat at the base, and then changed his mind part way up and made it thinner to allow space for the murex shell on the right.
The coin shows a baetyl with a snake winding around it. But which baetyl is this? Its shape, and the snake, are reminiscent of the Omphalos on the coin shown above. Perhaps this snake is the Python that Apollo defeated. But this is a coin of Elagabalus, and he is known for his worship of the baetyl of Emesa, shown below. So perhaps it is that stone, though this does not explain the snake.
And there is a third possibility. In the mythology of the Phoenicians, Ouranos (the sky) and Gê (the earth) gave birth to four sons, one of whom was named Baitylos. (Greek mythology has a different account.) So this stone might be a representation of a Phoenician deity.
In the town of Emesa in Syria, now called Hims (or Homs), a sun god was worshipped. He was called Elah-Gabal, Heliogabalus or Elagabalus, or sometimes other variations of this name.
It happened that an Emperor of Rome, Septimius Severus, had married a Syrian princess from Emesa before he became Emperor. Julia Domna was the youngest daughter of the local high priest Gaius Julius Bassianus, and through this heredity, her grand-nephew Varius Avitus Bassianus was also a priest of that sun god in his home town.
In due course, this young man, now renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, became Emperor in his turn. We know him best by neither of those names, but by the name of the god whose priest he was. Because Elagabalus, perhaps the weirdest of all the Roman Emperors, decided to bring his god to Rome and place it at the head of the Roman pantheon.
The baetyl of Emesa was the stone of the sun-god Elagabalus. It is shown on the coin on the right. It was black, and is sometimes said to have an eagle engraved on it. Certainly an eagle was often shown in front of it or standing upon it, as on this coin, but it is not clear what, if anything, was really engraved on it. Some examples of the coin on the right might show a crescent and stars, or something more complicated, or maybe only an irregular shape. An Imperial denarius shows an eagle clearly in front of the stone, and stars that might be on it.
As part of the process of making his sun-god supreme in Rome, the emperor Elagabalus brought the baetyl to the capital and installed it in a new temple, the Elagabalium.
There are many coins, including Roman Imperial denarii and aurei, which show the stone in a ceremonial procession, set in a slow quadriga, shaded by parasols. It is said that Elagabalus the Emperor walked backwards in front of the quadriga in these processions, his eyes fixed on the stone, the object of his reverence.
The left-hand coin is so worn that you can only just see the stone in the background. This coin is from Aelia Capitolina, the name the Romans gave to Jerusalem.
To its right is a clearer coin from Laodikeia ad Mare in Syria. This coin shows the stone clearly, as well as the parasols surrounding the quadriga.
When Elagabalus the Emperor was finally killed, his successor, Severus Alexander, had the stone returned to Emesa. Some have conjectured that this is the same Black Stone that can now be found in the Grand Mosque in Mecca. If so, it is quite small compared to the depictions on these last two coins, maybe a foot in diameter; more consistent with the stone on the coin from Emesa itself, above right.
Astarte was an ancient goddess from the Phoenician region, sometimes calles Ashtoreth. She was a goddess of sexuality, love and war. She was equivalent to the Mesopotamian Ishtar, a goddess associated with holy prostitution.
The Greeks took her up under the name Aphrodite, and later, the Romans evoked her into the Empire from Sicily as Venus Erycina. This ancient deity had a long and complex history.
One of the Phoenician cities in which she was worshipped was Sidon. These coins comes from that city in the time of the emperor Elagabalus and his successor Severus Alexander, and show what is sometimes called the Cart of Astarte, a two-wheeled carriage containing a round or ovoid baetyl on two oddly-shaped supports, underneath a protective baldaquin.
This is one of the best known baetyl coins.
It is normally presumed that this is specifically a baetyl of Astarte, though I have also seen it conjectured that — as it appears on coins of Elagabalus — the baetyl is his personal holy stone of Emesa. However, the carriage is not the type that appears on coins from Rome or Emesa, where Elagabalus' stone had actually been taken in procession. For example, it lacks the decorative parasols and instead cas a cover with palm branches. You would have to assume that the Sidonites had heard of those processions, but not the fine details, and given the stone their own local appurtenances. And as the Phoenicians were quite familiar with baetyls, such assumptions do not appear to be necessary.
You would also have to explain why the same stone appears on coins of Severus Alexander, who became emperor after Elagabalus' violent overthrow and sent his stone back to Emesa. That would be carelessness by the Sidonites, at best.
In the north-west of Syria, by the seashore near the mouth of the river Orontes, is Jebel Aqra, Bald Mountain.
This mountain is particularly prone to thunderstorms, and had been the place of worship of more than one local thunder god before the arrival of the Euboean Greeks. When they settled on the north side of the mountain, they called the main peak Mount Kasios.
They adopted the local thunder deity into their own pantheon and called him Zeus Kasios, the Zeus of this particular mountain.
This coin comes from Seleukia Pieria, a nearby town which had been built by Seleukos I Nikator in 300 BCE. This town no longer exists; its ruins are near the town of Samandağ in Turkey. The coin was struck in the reign of the Emperor Trajan, at the beginning of the second century CE, and shows the baetyl of Zeus Kasios in his shrine.
The hollow near the top of this stone appears on nearly all coins that show it, so must have been there in reality. Perhaps it was used to place offerings, or to hold a statuette or other holy object.
The Romans considered the era of Saturn to have been a golden age, when no-one needed to work because the earth's abundance was freely available to all. His festival, Saturnalia, was a very merry time. But not everything about Saturn was so lovely. He was also equated with the Greek god Kronos, son of the sky, Ouranos. Kronos overthrew his father by attacking him with a sickle or a harpa, castrating him.
Kronos had been given a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his own sons, so whenever Rhea gave birth, he devoured the child. But eventually, Rhea made a plan. When she gave birth to Zeus, she gave Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, and he swallowed that. The eventual outcome when Zeus grew up included the forced disgorging of the stone and all the other children, who became part of the Greek pantheon.
So, when Saturn is shown on a rebuplican coin like this one with a harpa over his shoulder and a stone behind him, it is a reference to the Roman version of the Kronos myth, with Saturn in the leading role and Ops as the mother of the unlucky children. There is a very alarming painting by Goya depicting this. Perhaps the coin is not so pretty when the full story is known!
But the harpa was not just a weapon. Saturn was supposed to have brought agriculture to the Romans, and he is sometimes shown with a long-handled harpa, an implement for cutting grain that symbolised fruitful cropping and the cycle of the years. There are some more Saturn and Harpa coins on my Saturn page.
The town or Perge (Perga to the Romans) had a temple to Artemis which was probably ancient, perhaps dating back to the 5th century CE. In it was an object which is usually referred to as a cult statue of Artemis of Perge, or Artemis Pergaia.
This object is shown on the coin on the left, which dates from the 2nd or 1st century BCE.
It is vague enough that you might take it for a rather blocky seated figure wearing a cylindrical headdress. But if you look carefully, the detail is not quite right for that.
In the centre is another coin from the same period, much clearer without the countermark, which has a slightly different shape.
On this coin you can see a multistoried structure with a vase-shaped object prominently displayed at its top. This time there is an irregularly shaped object, perhaps with a carved surface, between the vase and the lower layers.
Later coins, like the bronze of Marcus Aurelius from the mid-second-century CE on the right of the row, also show a good deal of detail, but again, with differences. This object looks nothing at all like a cult statue. The two niched layers are not in tiers, but the same width as each other; and instead of that irregular object, there is a regular dome with a decorated surface. However, the vase-shaped object is still there, now even more prominently displayed.
Marvin Tameanko, in his book "Monumental Coins", reconstructs this structure and calls the whole thing a baetyl. But I think this is not quite the correct use of the word.
Perhaps the small object with the long neck was actually a baetyl. The rest of the structure is there to support and display that object, with niches in which to place offerings or perhaps cult objects.
The baetyl itself, if this is the correct interpretation, is an unusual shape, and is clearly not a found stone but something made with care.
Coins of several emperors from Deultum in Thrace show an oddly-shaped object, which in the references is usually labelled a beehive. This follows Jurukova, who called it that because he thought the shape was similar.
A more likely conjecture was put forward by Michel Amandry, and followed by Dragonov. They call the object a civic fountain, like the Meta Sudans ("sweating cone") in Rome; a type in which water flows from outlets at the top and over the shaped stobe, to be collected at the base.
A similarity in shape to the stone (if that is what is is) of Artemis Pergaia, shown in the previous paragraph, is no doubt just a potentially confusing coincidence. But it has been conjectured that this might be a sacred stone.
It is often shown with a tiny structure below or in front of it; sometimes sketchy, as on the left-hand coin, sometimes in much clearer detail. If the object is a sacred stone, then the structure below might be the temple that contains the holy object, shown in small scale just to indicate its existence. But it could also be part of a fountain.
Beehive, fountain or baetyl? All these are only imaginative conjectures. But the beehive is certainly the least likely explanation of the three, and the fountain perhaps the most likely.
This coin, from Caesarea in Cappadocia, now called Kayseri, shows what appears to be a pyramidical baetyl. Another idea is that it might be a stylised representation of Mount Argaeus. That mountain was in plain view from Caesarea; it is a huge volcano, now called Erciyes Daği by the Turks.
Not surprisingly, the mountain appears on many coins of Caesarea, but usually in the form of a pile of rocks.
Baetyls in conical form are known on coins from Kaunos and elsewhere, so it is not unreasonable to accept that a pyramidical form could be a baetyl. Perhaps this one has to remain uncertain.
Also appearing on coins, but not represented here, are:
• A conical baetyl (sometimes with two handles) on coins of Kaunos in Caria which have winged Iris on the obverse;
• A conical baetyl of Aphrodite in a courtyard on coins from Byblos in Phoenicia;
• A baetyl between tables and under a tree on coins from Lyrbe in Cilicia;
• Three baetyls on an altar in a small scene inset into a founder's ploughing scene, on a coin of Severus Alexander from Bostra in Arabia Petraea (Gemini VI lot 691; Spijkerman 51; Meshorer 241);
• A dome-shaped baetyl of Dusares (the Arabian equivalent of Dionysus) on an altar on a coin of Marcus Aurelius from Adraa in Arabia Petraea (Gemini VI lot 674; Spijkerman 3, pl. 10; SNG ANS 1130; Hendin 809 var);
• Two small baetyls on either side of a tall column surmounted by a globe in a phallic arrangement on a coin of Elagabalus from Charachmoba in Arabia Petraea. The globe on the column may be intended to represent a baetyl of Dusares. (Gemini VI lot 699; Spijkerman 5; Rosenberger 2; Hendin 302);
• The Black Stone of Paphos in Cyprus, a baetyl of Aphrodite, on coins of several Emperors. This stone still exists, in a museum near Kouklia. It is 130 by 90 cm, and is a smooth piece of andesite, a volcanic rock. It is definitely not a meteorite.
Other holy stones that have existed include:
• A stone of Cybele, which was brought to Rome from Pergamon on 204 BCE, accompanied by Cybele and Attis' self-castrated priests which were probably rather alarming to the Romans, when Cybele's cult was evoked into the Republic as the Magna Mater.
• A cubical stone of Dusares, whose name could also be transliterated as Dushara, in the god's sanctuary at Petra. This is presumably not the same stone as the conical or globular ones mentioned above.
• A stone of the Ephesian Artemis, which was in the goddess' great temple at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Just because I have not listed these last three as being on coins does not mean such coins don't exist; it means that I have not come across any. There are probably many other sacred stones too, which I will add to the list if I hear or read about them.
|———————— Some Relevant References ————————|
These books provided some, but not all, of the information on this page. Thanks also to the contributors to the Forum Classical Numismatics Discussion Board, a group of people who are both helpful and knowledgeable. In particular, Jochen and Pat Lawrence have been very helpful in clearing a view through the fog of just plain wrong material about the Omphalos which can be found on the web and elsewhere. Thanks also to Lloyd T. for his personal observation of the limestone half-ovoid now visible at Delphi. Any mistakes or misapprehensions that remain are mine alone.
Thanks are also due to participants in Forum for the conjecture about Deultum's "beehive".
Collier's Encyclopaedia, 1995 edition.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary by various writers, edited by N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard. Second edition.
A Dictionary of Roman Coins by Seth William Stevenson, F.S.A., C Roach Smith, F.S.A., and Frederic W. Madden, M.R.A.S. First published by George Bell and Sons, 1889. Reprinted by B A Seaby Ltd, London in 1964.
Monumental Coins — Buildings & Structures on Ancient Coinage by Marvin Tameanko. Published in 1999 by krause publications.
Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History by Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1998.
These books are covered in a bit more detail on my page on coin reference books.
|The content of this page was last updated on 1 January 2013|
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